Religious believers tend to assume that if more people had faith, the world would be so much better. Actually, it would be worse. For faith divides and reason unites. If our goal is a peaceful, harmonious, productive, safe world, reason will get us closer to what we want and faith will take us further away.
This is the central theme of Sam Harris’ excellent book, “The End of Faith,” which I’ve written about before. His opening chapter is called “Reason in Exile.” It’s a devastatingly accurate critique of faith-based religions. In other words, all religions. For a “religion” founded on reason is better termed a philosophy; going further, if founded on fact it would be a science.
Here are some excerpts from this chapter that will give you a flavor of Harris’ thesis:
While all faiths have been touched, here and there, by the spirit of ecumenicalism, the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed…religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse.
…I hope to show that spirituality can be—indeed, must be—deeply rational, even as it elucidates the limits of reason…It is time we recognized that the only thing that permits human beings to collaborate with one another in a truly open-ended way is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new facts. Only openness to evidence and argument will secure a common world for us.
Reasonable people can spend an evening together pleasantly conversing even if their views are widely divergent. Faith-based people can’t. True believers aren’t able to interact with non-believers in a genuinely humble and open manner. The reason is simple: they aren’t genuinely humble and open. True believers believe that only they possess the truth. They aren’t interested in opening themselves up to new ideas, new facts, new ways of looking at the world, new avenues of approaching God.
Ken Wilber, in his book “Sex, Ecology, Spirituality,” says: “It seems to be the case that the vast majority of the world’s population does not now need ways to get beyond rationality, but ways to get up to it…Thus the greatest world transformation would simply be the embrace of global reasonableness and pluralistic tolerance…Rationality is the only structure that will tolerate structures other than itself.”
It’s generally assumed that polite people don’t challenge the religious beliefs of others. If you’re at a party, making conversation with someone you’ve just met, and he says, “I worship the trolls that live under the earth because they are going to surface soon and reward those who believed in them,” most likely you’d respond with something like, “Hmmmm. That’s interesting” and look around for someone less crazy to converse with.
But a more appropriate response would be, “Trolls?! Are you kidding? That sounds ridiculous. What evidence do you have that this is true?” You’d now be engaging with your companion, sharing ideas, delving deeper into his (weird) worldview, possibly aiding him to embrace more reasonable conceptions.
I agree with Harris’ general view that religious moderation is to religious extremism as an open liquor cabinet is to alcoholism: one fosters the other. If something is dangerous, then anything which enables the danger to continue to exist is itself dangerous. Faith threatens to destroy the world. Witness 9/11. Witness the Crusades. Faith always has been a destructive force. The only difference in modern times is that faith-based people now have more power to use in trying to make others bend to their unreasonable will.
Harris says, “The very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.”
Reason is the cornerstone of public discourse. It is the primary means by which we communicate our needs, ideas, and desires to other people. We don’t stand on a street corner and scream at passersby (well, some do); we engage them in a conversation of some sort: face to face, or indirectly through media such as cyberspace. When public discourse is reasonable, everyone can participate in the forum. Open minds welcome other open minds. And open minds lead to open hearts.
However, faith is the cornerstone of private belief. Faith doesn’t require reasons, nor should it. Faith is what we cling to when fear, darkness, uncertainty, and mystery threaten us. There’s nothing wrong with faith—it’s a natural human way of coping with the unknown. But it should, no it must, be a private possession that is shared only with those willing to accept it.
Most importantly, personal faith never should be used as a justification for public action. If you act not for a clear-sighted reason, but out of blind faith, make damn sure that no one else will be affected by your action. In the same fashion, I have a right to expect that the fellow automobile drivers who are on the road with me know what they’re doing; if they want to get drunk, lose their reason, and drive out of control, they should do it by themselves on their own property where no one else will get hurt.
I often hear people saying that they respect a politician because he or she brings a personal faith into the elected position. I cringe at those words. I’d much prefer that we elect reasonable people of little faith instead of faith-based people of little reason. And I have good reasons for saying so.